Category Archives: Bread

Georgian Food in NYC at Old Tbilisi Garden

One thing is sure at Old Tbilisi Garden on Bleecker Street in NYC’s Greenwich Village, you won’t leave hungry. OK, I knew going here that I was going to get the cheesy bread thing I’ve seen posted everywhere. Not schooled in Georgian cuisine, I wasn’t sure what it was, but my waiter educated me on how to eat it. The most popular variation is the adjaruli khachapuri, a boat-shaped bread filled with sulguni cheese and topped with an egg and butter. I wasn’t familiar with sulguni cheese, but it is a stringy cheese made from cow and/or buffalo milk. What you do is break the egg and mix it together with the cheese. Then, you break off bits of the bread to dip in the cheesy mixture and enjoy! This is a meal in itself!  The bread dough here was very good, reminiscent of my grandma’s delicious calzone dough. It is the perfect example to show that something so simple as bread, or dough, can be amazing.

I didn’t want my meal to consist of only carbs and fat, so I also got a Georgian salad, which was a pretty basic salad with a large enough portion for a few people.

For protein, I got the bazhe chicken appetizer in which chicken pieces are topped with a walnut sauce sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.  This dish is served cold, and the sauce had a curry-like flavor to me.

Old Tbilisi Garden is a popular spot with a bustling business. It’s best to make a reservation, as I had been turned away on a prior occasion. This time, I didn’t have one but luckily, there was a table available on a busy weeknight.

The New Italy in New York: Pisillo Italian Panini

A friend told me about Pisillo Italian Panini and I’m glad he did. Not only are the sandwiches delicious, but the owner comes from the town near my grandfather’s in Italy, Sant’Agata de’ Goti.  Sant’Agata de’ Goti is a prototypical Medieval Italian city located in the province of Benevento in the Campania region of Italy near Naples. A truly delightful place to visit and the hometown of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s grandfather.

Pisillo is a small shop in Manhattan’s Financial District that does a brisk lunch business.  Sometimes the line is out the door, but luckily, there are menus tacked up everywhere so you can read the long list of sandwiches before you get to the counter.

There is a variety of bread for your sandwich, including focaccia, ciabatta and sfilatino, a long, crunchier bread that would be familiar to Italian Americans but maybe not so to others.

I ordered the Sant’Agata with mortadella, fresh mozzarella, tomato and arugula on sfilatino.  The sandwich is very large and was very tasty.

Pisillo’s is so popular that it opened a coffee shop next door. The coffee shop has some seating as well that you are welcome to if there are no seats at the sandwich shop. When I visited, the coffee shop had a minimal amount of pastries.  Some cannoli, sfogliatelle and cookies. I opted for the pretty cannoli.

While it was pretty, I wasn’t sure about the filling. It was different from what I’m used to with ricotta cream. So I wasn’t able to discern what it was.  Maybe ricotta with confectioners’ sugar? Not sure.

I wouldn’t say the panini shop or the coffee shop are bringing anything new to New York that the Italian immigrants of old didn’t introduce before, but both  are a nice addition to an area lacking in good food choices and Italian choices.

 

Day of the Dead Pan de Muerto

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I got some pan de muerto, or pan de los muertos, from a Mexican bakery for Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, also known as All Souls’ Day, November 2. Pan de muerto is a sweet bread made for the occasion that is a round loaf with bone shapes on top. Some of the bread is shaped like a person.

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I saw a wonderful replica of an ofrenda, a Day of the Dead altar, at the Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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Taralli, an Italian Snack

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Taralli are a Southern Italian snack food.  If you’ve visited Italian-American bakeries or grocery stores, you may have seen the ring-shaped snack food sold in different varieties, such as fennel-flavored.  These crunchy snacks originate in Southern Italy.  Like much of Italian food, taralli are different in different regions.

In Naples, they are traditionally made with lard, pepper and almonds.  They were first made from scraps of leftover bread dough.  To this dough was added lard and pepper.  In the Neapolitan language, lard is “nzogna,” so you will see these as nzogna and pepe.  In Naples today, you will see this variety also has almonds.  Almonds were added in the 1800s, but the older version of these did not have almonds.  This older version is what my mother remembers at bakeries of her youth, bakeries that carried on Southern Italian traditions from the late 1800s here in the United States.  In fact, there were other crunchy breads that also had lard and pepper added to them.

In times past, the taralli vendor would sell the snack from a cart.  In Napoli today, miniature depictions of taralli vendors are sold on Via San Gregorio Armeno where you can find the famous presepio, or Nativity figures.

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In Puglia, taralli, or tarallini, are usually smaller, more crunchy and smoother with no almonds.  They are not made with lard but with olive oil and are often flavored with fennel or chili.  These are the ones most often found in Italian-American bakeries and stores.  They can also be made sweet instead of savory, which is popular in Basilicata.

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The origin of the word “taralli” is unknown, but it is thought to derive from the Greek word toros, meaning toroidal or round.  Or the Greek word daratos for a kind of bread.  It could also be from torrere, Latin for toast, or for a French type of bread.

Taralli are served year round but also during Carnevale.  They are made by either baking or by boiling then baking, similar to bagels.

They are plentiful at bakeries in Naples.  I like the nzogna e pepe from Leopoldo Infante.

Standard Foods May Be Standard But It Is Far From Ordinary

Standard Foods is the perfect name for this Raleigh restaurant by former Herons executive chef Scott Crawford. All the foods here are locally sourced, whole foods. And there’s a market attached so you can purchase them to cook at home. Kudos to you if you can cook them with an expert hand like this chef. I’ll stick with dining at the restaurant.

My friend and I started with smoked pecans from the snacks section of the menu. I guessed they would have some kind of seasoning on them. But they tasted like they had been cooked in a smoker. They are so wonderfully addictive.

smoked pecans

We ordered a turnip and apple salad from the small plates section. Is this the first time someone is writing that a turnip salad was absolutely delicious? But this one is. All the elements, including the creamy dressing and cheese, work well together.

turnip and apple salad

We followed with a nice, slightly sweet butternut squash ravioli.

butternut squash ravioli

The roasted chicken breast and leg cooked in duck fat with mushrooms and carrots is a very generous large plate. The chicken breast was cooked perfectly. The leg was very rich. We shared this dish, so it worked out well for two. The carrots had a delightful sweet glaze.

chicken

The potato puree arrived in adorable Le Creuset cookware. I really liked this very smooth version of mashed potatoes.

potato puree

The sopping bread was a very nice multigrain bread from Boulted Bread.

Boulted bread

For dessert, I got the sweet potato cheesecake, a deconstructed version of cheesecake with these caramel popcorn pieces and a creme fraiche. Divine! Just wish the serving was bigger!

sweet potato cheesecake

6 Italian Christmas Foods & Traditions

(Scroll down for list.)

Christmas is a special time of year in an Italian household. The holidays bring many traditions, but Italian traditions differ based on region. Italy is divided into 20 regions, but these regions came into existence only after Italy was unified in the 1860s. Prior to that, the peninsula and surrounding islands and areas were part of various kingdoms and under different rulers through the centuries. There are many influences from other countries, and some traditions that date back to the earliest inhabitants. So the things I’m going to mention on this list may not be celebrated by all Italians. Keep in mind that the majority of Italian Americans are descended from people from Naples and Sicily and other areas of Southern Italy, so the traditions of Italian Americans are primarily Southern Italian traditions. For example, while we may buy a panettone, it was not something Southern Italians made. Cookies like struffoli, bows, pizzelles and anginettes are classic Christmas cookies of Southern Italians.

I have fond memories of Christmas. We always had bowls of mixed nuts around the house. The Saturday before Christmas we’d bring my grandma to the fish market so she could pick out what we needed for dinner, which always included a live eel and lobster. At the market, they would cut off the eel’s head and skin and chop it. As a family, we would make the bows and struffoli cookies. I liked using the pastry cutter to cut the bows. I watched as my grandmother cut a hole in the middle and pulled one end through to make the bow. Or else she would just tie the piece of dough in a knot like tying a shoelace. She’d fry them and shake powdered sugar on them. They kept through the holidays. The trick to our struffoli is cutting the pieces small because that’s how we like them. We also like honey syrup, pine nuts and sprinkles on top.

For Christmas Eve, my grandmother made a tomato-based sauce with some shrimp, calamari, scungilli, lobster, mussels and clams to serve over linguine. Traditionally, my family also had octopus salad, baccala salad, fried baccala, fried eel, fried smelts, lobster tails and baked clams. Sometimes we’d go to Midnight Mass.

For Christmas, we had antipasto consisting of Italian meats like Genoa salami, prosciutto, soppressata, capocollo and dried sausages; cheeses like provolone imported from Italy and fresh mozzarella; olive salad; pepper salad; some kind of pasta dish like lasagna or ravioli served with a tomato gravy cooked with pork, beef, beef and pork neck bones and meatballs; a green salad; and pastries from an Italian bakery or an Italian cheesecake my grandmother would make.

cannoli, pasticcioti, sfogliatelle

cannoli, pasticcioti, sfogliatelle

My grandma always put out plates of finocchio, celery and olives as palate cleanser between courses. With dessert, the adults might have some liqueur such as anisette or Galliano.

La Befana

La Befana

La Befana is also a holiday tradition in Italy. La Befana is known as a good witch, but is really just an old Italian lady who was busy cleaning her house when three visitors arrived. They were the Three Wise Men, and they wanted her to come along to see the Infant Jesus. She had too much cleaning to do and didn’t want to go. (Sounds like an Italian lady.) However, she later regretted that decision and set off with her broom to find the Christ Child and bring him a gift. She is still searching, so that is why she gives gifts to children on Epiphany, January 6. Historians say La Befana may have her origins in a pagan goddess called Strina, or Befana may be the pronunciation of the Greek word for Epiphany, epifania. We were aware of the tradition of La Befana, a tradition my grandparents grew up with but didn’t continue with their children. My grandmother would put her shoes out for La Befana, who would fill them with oranges, nuts and candy. Children would get coal if they were bad–a tradition my grandmother did continue, as she gave one of my aunts coal when she was bad. La Befana still visits children in Italy on Epiphany, and my cousins get candy and gifts in stockings.

panettone

panettone

  1. Panettone and Christmas breads–Panettone is probably the most recognizable Italian Christmas food and was declared the national Christmas cake in 1931 in the Gastronomic Guide to Italy. It comes from Milan in Northern Italy. A number of Christmas breads come from Northern Italy like pane al doge from Venice,  
    pane al doge

    pane al doge

    pandoro (pan d’oro or golden cake) of Verona,

    pandoro

    pandoro

    pandolce of Genoa (more buttery than panettone) or pan dolce from Friuli. There are a number of legends as to the origins of panettone, one being it was pan di Toni (bread of Tony or Tony’s bread) named after a baker named Toni. (A more modern dessert is the zuccotto di panettone, a Christmas pudding made with a panettone.)

    zuccotto

    zuccotto di panettone

  2. Chestnuts and nuts–Chestnuts have a long tradition in Italy.
    chestnuts

    chestnuts

    They were once a staple of the poor and then a popular export. They are roasted and eaten plain or candied or used in other dishes.

    chestnuts

    roasting chestnuts

    Filberts/hazelnuts are also eaten at this time of year. Both chestnuts and hazelnuts were eaten by the Etruscans.

    hazelnuts

    hazelnuts

    As I said earlier, we always had bowls of mixed nuts, including chestnuts, around during the holidays with old-fashioned nutcrackers. Almonds have been cultivated in Puglia for 7,000 years.  Along with hazelnuts, they are used in the confections in #3.

  3. Confections and candyPanforte of Siena is a confection using spices, nuts, dried fruits and syrup to create a cake.
    panforte

    panforte

    It is similar to the pangiallo of Rome. Panforte dates back to the 12th century and derived from a honey and pepper bread named panpepato. Torrone is a nougat from Cremona with dried fruit and nuts.

    torrone

    torrone

    Italians love candied fruit like orange rind and sugared nuts as well.

    Candied citron

    Candied citron

    Candied citron is very popular in Italian desserts–not just at Christmas time but also at other times of the year. For example, citron is included in the Easter wheat pie, pastiera.

  4. Christmas cookies–Cookies are everyone’s favorite holiday food. And Italians take their baking very seriously. Both sides of my family always made strufoli/struffoli (also known as pignoccati) and fried bows. Struffoli are a Neapolitan treat–fried dough balls in honey syrup decorated with pine nuts, sprinkles or dried fruits like the picture below. These are a favorite of mine.
    strufoli, struffoli

    strufoli, struffoli

    Bows are another fried dough treat that cross many cultures. In Italy, they are made in many regions and have many names like chiacchiere, cenci, cartellate, galani, bugie, frappe, donzelli, crostoli, farfellate or “wandi,” which I think is guanti or gloves in Italian. Thinking about this more, I think it may be “vanti” because in Neapolitan dialect, we pronounce “v” like “w” and “t” sounds a bit like “d.” Vanti are boasts and since these cookies are also called “bugie,” or “lies,” I think they could be called boasts as well. These are a family favorite. They can be sprinkled with powdered sugar or honey syrup.

    bows

    bows

    In Puglia, there’s a variation called cartellate in a circular shape drizzled with a honey syrup or vincotto (cooked wine syrup). Anginetti cookies, also known as knot cookies, are a popular Italian cookie. My Aunt Angie made the best ones I’ve ever had. Anise cookies are made with anise flavor. Similar in taste to licorice, anise is a flavor that appears often in Italian foods.  Mostaccioli are diamond-shaped Neapolitan chocolate spice cookies. Tri-colored rainbow cookies are a favorite as well.  Sesame cookies are finger-shaped cookies coated with sesame seeds.

    sesame

    sesame cookies

    Cucidati/cuccidati are fig cookies from Sicily. These cookies, when made by hand, are labor intensive but great fun for the family.

    cuccidati

    cuccidati

    Pizzelles are originally from the Abruzzo region of Italy and most likely predate the Roman empire. Years ago, families had irons to create this waffled cookie, and the iron included a family crest or design.

    pizzelle

    pizzelle

    Pignoli cookies are popular Italian cookies made with pine nuts. I’ve also seen wine biscuits although my family didn’t make them. Many of these cookies like struffoli, bows, sesame cookies and pizzelles have their origins in ancient times.

  5. Liqueurs–Anisette is an anise-flavored liqueur that can be used as a digestive, by itself in a small glass or in coffee along with a dessert. Galliano is an herbal digestive (an acquired taste–not a favorite of mine).
  6. Feast of the Seven Fishes–As I’ve written on my blog before, we always had fish on Christmas Eve but never called it by this name. And there was no requirement of seven fishes. I think this may be from a different region of Italy from my family. The tradition of fish is a religious one, stemming from the Roman Catholic Church and abstaining from meat on certain holy days, Christmas Eve being one. The most popular fishes to eat include baccala (cod),
    baccala

    baccala

    calamari,

    calamari

    calamari

    and octopus.

    octopus

    octopus

    My grandfather made fried smelts, and my grandmother made eel. We also had baked clams.

    baked clams

    baked clams

     

Buttermilk Breads

I was so excited to find this whole buttermilk from Harrisburg Dairies at Whole Foods.  So I decided to make my favorite buttermilk dish–cornbread in buttermilk.

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Here’s the cornbread:

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And here’s the yum:

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I also made this Grape-Nuts bread from A Family Feast that uses buttermilk.  It’s very similar to Irish soda bread with the added crunch and flavor of Grape-Nuts cereal.  (I had to bake it for about an hour and a half so check the time.)

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